Monday, December 17, 2012

Appalling: Woman wrongly charged with making false rape report

Shortly before midnight on July 14, 2004, Sara Reedy, then 19 and pregnant, called police from the Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania gas station where she was working and reported that she had been the victim of a sexual assault by an assailant who also stole some $600 from the station's safe. The police did not believe Ms. Reedy's claims. She was charged with theft and making a false report. Faced with a bond she couldn't pay, she was deprived of her liberty for six days.

In August 2005, just weeks before Ms. Reedy was to put on trial for making a false claim, a Dauphin County, Pennsylvania man, Wilber Cyrus Brown, 43, confessed to multiple assaults across Pennsylvania, including the attack on Ms. Reedy during which a gun was held to her head while she was forced to perform oral sex. Mr. Brown was convicted of rape and other charges in connection with the incident.

If Brown hadn't confessed, Ms. Reedy might have gone to prison for truthfully telling police that she had suffered a terrible atrocity and expecting them to do their job.

Ms. Reedy filed suit against the municipality. In a precedent-setting decision against the police, an appellate court ruled in 2010 that the detective did not act in a reasonable fashion and that he lacked probable cause when he arrested Ms. Reedy. The court ruled that the case could go to trial. It has been reported that Cranberry's insurance carrier has agreed to a $1.5 million legal settlement. A monetary victory procured at an awful price for a woman subjected to two awful ordeals.

"I had images of my family finding me dead," Ms. Reedy told a reporter about the attack. "I closed my eyes and just tried to get it over with." Reedy said the police officer who took her to hospital from the gas station in Cranberry Township, about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, in July 2004 was nice. But once she got there, she was interviewed by another detective. "I told him what happened. . . . [H]e asked me where the money was."

The officer's callousness defies description. Upon being bailed, Ms. Reedy was turned away from a local victim help center, and old school friends spread rumors about her. Even her parents expressed doubts about their daughter's veracity after talking to the detective who didn't believe her. Being socially ostracized is common for the wrongly accused.

It is unfathomable that police would charge a woman for lying about rape just because they don't believe her story. An inordinate number of rape claims fall into an unfortunate gray area where the facts are murky and and too often unknowable -- that's the nature of a rape claim. Rape is a crime committed in private. No one should assume they know what happened in those instances. The investigation of rape claims require special training and skills; not every police officer should be investigating rape claims. (This is a common theme when we discuss investigations and adjudications of sexual assault on campus by untrained personnel.)

Ms. Reedy suffered two terrible ordeals: she was the victim of a terrible crime, and she was falsely accused by the people who are supposed to protect her. It is good that she has ample support far beyond this blog; that is likely some consolation to her. And the money will come in handy, too, but it is small consolation.

During Ms. Reedy's battle, she testified in Congress, and this helped persuade the federal government this year to change the definition of rape to include forced oral sex and the rape of men. "I had a sense of pride at that," said Reedy. Recently engaged to a local man whom she described as honest and hardworking, she is considering starting to work for her parents' trucking firm. She said she was relieved at her vindication: "If my story can bring about change, I owe it to people to tell it."

This blog generally features reports about innocent men and boys wrongly accused of heinous crimes. We treat wrongly accused women with the same zeal. Sara Reedy was wrongly accused of making a false report of rape, and of theft. It is no consolation to her to insist that her case was rare just because she is a woman. She's a victim of an injustice, and that's all we care about.

Ms. Reedy's ordeal is a setback for those who are legitimately wrongly accused. We've reported on many cases where, it seems, police have overwhelming evidence to charge a false accuser but choose not to do so. Ms. Reedy's ordeal will only undermine public confidence in law enforcement the next time police charge even someone who ought to be charged with making a false rape claim.

Although it took her a long time and, we are sure, many traumatic days and sleepless nights, Ms. Reedy's victimization ultimately was treated seriously.

Bravo, Ms. Reedy!